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Married gays see progress in D.C.
It has been almost three years since Jeff Krehely took his vows in Massachusetts, but only Tuesday morning would he become a married man in the District. A law recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions was scheduled to take effect in the city at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, after a 30-day congressional review period expired.
The law will affect everything from tax filing, employer health care benefits, inheritance and hospital visitation rights to mundane activities, such as gym memberships and car rentals.
The mundane details were the ones that made Mr. Krehely, 32, an independent consultant, and Trevor Blake, 30, a lawyer, feel married. Shortly after their ceremony, the pair, who live in Northwest and took their vows in July 2006, got a discount reserved for married couples at a Massachusetts car-rental counter.
“That kind of stuff, it really matters — wills and inheritance rights, making sure that the laws reflect what our relationship is. It feels good to have the place you live do that, and makes the life you live easier,” Mr. Krehely said.
But the full effect of legal recognition remains unclear. And so does the number of residents who benefit.
Recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions strengthens many rights that were already in place with the District’s Health Benefits Expansion Act of 1992, which allowed gay couples to register as domestic partners and receive some of the same benefits afforded to married couples.
The act, which did not go into effect until 2002 because implementation was blocked by Congress, has been amended over the years to offer additional benefits that allow same-sex couples to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf, to benefit from hospital visitation rights and to file taxes jointly, among other things.
Before the holiday weekend, the District had not issued a statement to same-sex couples about their new rights. The D.C. Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs is working to release tip sheets and fact sheets, and D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles has requested that all government agencies review their policies so that implementation can proceed as smoothly and timely as possible, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said.
The U.S. Census Bureau lists 3,839 same-sex couples as residing in the District, according to 2005-2007 data. And the nearly 33,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual people — single and coupled — living in the District made up approximately 8.1 percent of the city’s total adult population in 2005.
However, there is no way to determine how many gay couples might be legally married in other jurisdictions, according to Gary J. Gates, a demographer with the William Institute at the UCLA School of Law and author of the Gay and Lesbian Atlas.
Julie Verratti, 29, a third-year student at the George Washington University Law School, and Emily Bruno, 27, an employee at the State Department, were married in California on June 20, 2008, before California residents voted in November to again prohibit same-sex marriage there. They reside in Cleveland Park and have lived together in the District since the summer of 2007.
Ms. Verratti said that it has been more difficult, as a lesbian couple, to save up to buy a house because of higher expenses, a lack of domestic-partnership benefits for spouses of federal government employees and ineligibility for tax credits available to families and those repaying student loans. She said she hopes the law will make financial planning easier for families like theirs.
“We want to save and buy a house, just like everybody else, but I have to save and take out extra money because I can’t be put on Emily’s insurance” she said.
But as long as same-sex marriage is banned at the federal level, gay couples will be subject to different financial standards.
“Even though D.C. may be recognizing same-sex couples who are married, the issue is the interplay with that and what is happening at the federal level,” said Joe Kapp, past president of the Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and a financial planner in Bethesda.
At the federal level, D.C. gay couples will continue to be subject to taxation of domestic-partner benefits and will be excluded from Social Security survivorship benefits, unlimited gifting between partners and unlimited marital deduction for estates.
And spouses of gay federal government employees in the District, such as Ms. Bruno, will continue to be exempt from health care benefits because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage.
The difference also means that filing D.C. taxes and filing federal taxes will make financial planning more complex for gay couples. To qualify for tax benefits, D.C. Code currently requires married couples to file the same as they do on the federal level. Legislation before the D.C. Council seeks to give married same-sex couples the option of filing jointly or separately as if the federal government recognized the right to marry.
And the fact that the District is recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states does not mean all gay couples should marry and file their taxes jointly, Mr. Kapp said.
“They have to sit down and take a look at their tax situation and determine if it benefits them to marry and file jointly at the state level,” he said.
The intersection between the federal and state level also affects elements of family law. For instance, because gay couples will not be treated as married under federal law, alimony is not tax-deductible.
One of the biggest changes that comes with the law is the ability for the District to dissolve same-sex marriages, according to Sue Silber, a Takoma Park-based family-law lawyer who works with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families. Gay couples that have married elsewhere and have resided in the District for more than six months will no longer need to travel outside the District to get a divorce, she said.
The law will do little to affect child-custody rights, which are dependent on the relationship with the child, not the couple’s relationship, Ms. Silber said.
Mr. Krehely and his spouse, who have lived in the District for the duration of their marriage, debated moving to Massachusetts but are happy they stayed here.
“Being recognized as married in the District makes it much more likely that we will stay here,” said Mr. Krehely, who noted that he and his spouse are considering starting a family. “You want to be somewhere that really does recognize your whole family and the relationships you have.”
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